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Stop human rights violation in South Korea

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South Korea was one of the first Asian countries to guarantee the rights of migrant workers - but today migrant workers in the country are exposed to abusive work conditions including discrimination, verbal and physical abuse.

Around 500,000 low-skilled migrant workers are employed in South Korea in manufacturing, construction, agriculture and other industries.

They are required to work long hours, night shifts, many without overtime pay, and often have their wages withheld. On average, they are paid less than South Korean workers in similar jobs and are at greater risk of industrial accidents, with inadequate medical treatment or compensation.

Women migrant workers are particularly at risk of exploitation. Many are sexually assaulted or harassed by management staff or their co-workers and some female workers have been trafficked by their employers.

The South Korean government announced in September 2008 that they are going to "harshly deal with illegal foreigners" and reduce them by half by 2012.

This has meant a dramatic increase in immigration raids of workplaces, on the streets, near public transportation hubs, in markets and in the private homes of migrant workers. There was a 50 per cent increase in the number of arrests of irregular migrant workers from 2007 to 2008.

From January to May 2009, more than 11,000 irregular migrant workers were arrested and detained and more than 11,000 others were deported.

Amnesty International has reported instances of arbitrary arrest, collective expulsions and violations of law enforcement procedures when carrying out these crackdowns.

The mass crackdowns have put pressure on detention facilities, contributing to problems of overcrowding, poor living conditions and delayed access to medical treatment.

Some irregular migrant workers are held in former office spaces that have been remodelled as detention centres. These facilities are wholly inappropriate, as they were not designed to detain and house people. They have poor ventilation - some with no external windows - and lack outdoor recreational space.




Amnesty International interviewed migrant workers who described how their employers forced them to work long hours and night shifts, without overtime pay, and often had their wages withheld by their employers.




"Despite the advances of the EPS system, the cycle of abuse and mistreatment continues as thousands of migrant  workers find themselves at the mercy of employers and the authorities who mistreat them knowing their victims have few legal rights and are unable to access justice or seek compensation for the abuse," said Roseann Rife.




Amnesty International research shows that women are at particular risk of abuse.  Several female workers recruited as singers in US military camp towns have been trafficked into sexual exploitation, including the sex industry, by their employers and managers.




Amnesty International spoke to trafficked women who said they had no choice but to remain in their jobs because they were in debt to their employer and did not know where to turn to for help.  If the women ran away, they risked losing their legal status and being subject to deportation.




"These women are double victims, first they are trafficked and then they become "illegal" migrants under South Korean law when they attempt to escape from their exploitative situation," said Roseann Rife.


The South Korean government has an obligation to ensure that the EPS system is compatible with international human rights law and standards. All migrant workers, regardless of their legal status, have rights under international human rights and labour rights law. The range of international treaties protecting the rights of migrant workers enshrine and include the indivisibility of civil and political and economic, social and cultural rights:

the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD);
the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW);
the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR);
the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR);
the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC);
the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (Migrant Workers' Convention);(15)
Conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

These international treaties guarantee migrant workers the rights to: Life;(16)
freedom from torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;(17)
freedom from slavery and servitude;(18)
freedom from imprisonment for inability to fulfil a contractual obligation;(19)
recognition as a person before the law;(20)
freedom of thought, conscience and religion;(21)
best attainable standard of physical and mental health;(22)
adequate housing;(24)
adequate food and water;(25)
work and rights at work(26).

The South Korean government has, by enacting the EPS Act, begun a significant attempt to protect the basic rights of migrant workers in South Korea. However, the implementation of the Act reveals that migrant workers remain a vulnerable community. This report examines how, despite the enactment of the EPS Act, the system for dealing with migration in South Korea has evolved in a manner that disadvantages migrant workers. It also describes human rights violations against migrant workers including discrimination and abuses in the workplace and during arrest, detention and deportation. The report ends with a series of recommendations to the South Korean government and other concerned stakeholders to address these violations and protect the rights of migrant workers.


South Korea has ratified a range of key international human rights and labour treaties which provide that the rights of all migrant workers, regardless of their legal status, should be promoted and respected. However it has yet to sign the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights off All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families members.

South Korea acceded to the ICCPR and the ICESCR in April 1990; the CERD in December 1978; the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture) in January 1995 the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in December 1984; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in November 1991.

The South Korean government should also ensure that all migrant workers benefit from the principles and rights in the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its follow-up, which are reflected in the eight fundamental conventions which the ILO has identified as core standards of labour protection.(27) It is a State Party to the following ILO Conventions.

Of the eight fundamental ILO conventions identified as core standards of labour protection, South Korea has ratified:

ILO Convention No.100: Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (which South Korea ratified in December 1997);
ILO Convention No.111: Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (which South Korea ratified in December 1998);
ILO Convention No.138: Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (which South Korea ratified in January 1999); and
ILO Convention No.182: Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (which South Korea ratified in March 2001).

 Amnesty International welcomes a recent commitment made by the South Korean government to ratify the four core standards of labour protection (ILO Convention Nos. 87, 98, 29 and 105) conventions in a recent letter to the UN(28), and urges the South Korean government to implement them in full and without delay. AI also urges the South Korean government to ratify the ILO Conventions which specifically protect the rights of migrant workers.

The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families members (or the Migrant Workers' Convention) is regarded as the foremost international instrument for the promotion and the protection of the rights of all migrant workers and their families. Regarded as a core international human rights convention, the Migrant Workers' Convention imposes a series of obligations on States Parties to promote among other things "sound, equitable, humane and lawful conditions" for all migrant workers, whether documented or irregular. Under the terms of this Convention, migrant workers are entitled to protection of their basic freedoms including the right to life; the right to freedom from torture; the right to due process including freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention; the right to medical care that is urgently required and the right to equal treatment -- in comparison to nationals in the country -- in respect to remuneration and other conditions of work, membership of trade unions and access to social services. The Migrant Workers' Convention also contains a non-discrimination clause for migrant workers and their families with regard to rights at work, access to education, access to adequate housing, food and water. It also protects the right of migrant workers to possess their identity documents when it states clearly that it is unlawful for anyone, other than officials, to confiscate or destroy identity documents including passports or documents authorizing entry to or stay or work permits.

Amnesty International calls on South Korea to ratify this important instrument as a key step towards the full protection of the rights of all migrant workers on its territory (〈=e).

Amnesty International calls on the government of South Korea:




to ensure that employers respect, protect and promote the rights of migrant workers through rigorous labour inspections so that the workplace is safe, training is provided and migrant workers are paid fairly and on time;to protect and promote the rights of all female migrant workers and stamp out sexual harassment and sexual exploitation;to allow irregular migrant workers to remain in South Korea while accessing justice and seeking compensation for abuses by employees;to ensure that during immigration raids, immigration authorities adhere to South Korean law requiring them to identify themselves, present a warrant, caution and inform migrant workers of their rights, and provide those under their custody prompt medical treatment when needed or requested;




 KN, a 34-year-old Sri Lankan male migrant worker, worked at a factory making shipping parts in Jinhae, South Gyeongsang province.  When a 150kg metal pipe fell on him, he broke five toes and two fingers.  Although he needed to be hospitalised for two months, his employer came to the hospital after 12 days and threatened to fire him if he did not return to work.  He did not even give KN time to change out of his hospital clothes.  Living on the second floor, KN had difficulty getting around because there were no lifts.  His leg hurt so much that he could barely stand.  Infuriated with KN, his employer dragged KN to the immigration office where he cancelled his work visa.




FJ, a 37-year-old Filipino female migrant worker, was recruited as a singer but was trafficked into sexual exploitation at a nightclub in Dongducheon, Gyeonggi province.  During her first week, her employer brought his friends to the nightclub and locked her and another woman in a room with them and left.  His friends demanded to have sex with the women but they refused.  When FJ later complained to her employer, he just yelled at her and threatened to send her back to the Philippines (








On 1 December 1998 hundreds of South Korean human rights activists marked the 50th anniversary of the National Security Law by holding a march and demonstration in central Seoul. They were protesting about the continued use of this law to arrest and imprison people for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association. Amnesty International also believes the National Security Law must be reformed and calls on the South Korean Government to make this a priority for 1999.








Almost 400 people were arrested under the National Security Law during 1998, including students, political activists, trade unionists, publishers, religious figures and even Internet surfers. Most of these prisoners had done nothing to deserve arrest and imprisonment and were held solely for the non-violent exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and association. Some had formed study groups, distributed pamphlets or published books with left-wing political ideas; others had held discussions about North Korea or disagreed with government policies on North Korea. Some were accused of contacting North Koreans without permission.








Most of those arrested under the National Security Law during 1998 were tried within six months of arrest and either released or given a short prison sentence, but some were given heavy sentences. A small number of long-term prisoners arrested 30 to 40 years ago were still held, making them some of the world's longest-serving political prisoners.








The National Security Law was adopted 50 years ago in the context of a divided Korea. Since the signing of an armistice agreement at the end of the Korean War in 1953, millions of Koreans on both sides of the divided peninsula have been separated from each other and the demilitarized zone which separates North and South Korea is one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world. South Korean officials have argued that the country needs the National Security Law to counter the military threat from North Korea. Amnesty International acknowledges South Korea's security predicament and the right of all states to maintain state security. But the National Security Law has been widely misused to detain people who posed no threat to security. South Korean governments have consistently used the law to remove people who pose a threat to established political views, to prevent people from taking part in discussions surrounding relations with North Korea and as a form of control at times of social unrest.








President Kim Dae-jung, who took office in February 1998, was himself imprisoned under the National Security Law during the 1980s and has been sympathetic to calls for reform. He has committed his government to human rights protection and has taken some positive steps over the past year, including the release of over 150 political prisoners in two prisoner amnesties. In September 1998 he told Amnesty International that "poisonous clauses" of the National Security Law would be reviewed in the near future but did not make any firm commitments.








President Kim and his Minister of Justice also told Amnesty International that the country's economic crisis and political opposition were hampering their efforts to improve human rights. 1998 was certainly a difficult year for South Korea's government as it struggled to cope with the worst economic crisis in decades. The crisis itself resulted in an erosion of many rights as unemployment soared to around two million, while the country lacks a social safety net for the jobless. The government's difficulties were compounded by unpredictable developments in North Korea, including alleged border incursions and the test-firing of a long-rang missile or satellite. Discussion on amending or abolishing the National Security Law is a delicate political issue in South Korea where powerful groups within business, political circles, the law-enforcement apparatus and the media are opposed to reforms.








In spite of these difficulties, Amnesty International believes that respect for freedom of expression and association will be important for South Korea's long-term political, economic and social development. As a former political prisoner told Amnesty International: "For South Korea to develop, we need people to be critical and to make creative proposals. It is a disgrace to arrest such people." The economic situation and political opposition should not be used to justify further abuses under the National Security Law.








Amnesty International believes that many of those opposed to prisoner releases and law reform would be persuaded in an informed and open debate on the subject and the evidence suggests that public opinion would not oppose reforms in accordance with international human rights standards. A survey carried out by Minbyun(lawyers for democracy) and the Hankyorehdaily newspaper in November 1998 revealed that over 70% of respondents favoured an amendment to the law.




Comments by United Nations bodies








In July 1992 the UN Human Rights Committee made the following comment after examining South Korea's initial report under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, ratified by South Korea):








". . . the Committee recommends that the State party intensify its efforts to bring its legislation more in line with the provisions of the Covenant. To that end, a serious attempt ought to be made to phase out the National Security Law which the Committee perceives as a major obstacle to the full realization of the rights enshrined in the Covenant and, in the meantime, not to derogate from certain basic rights".








In November 1995 the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression made the following recommendation, after a mission to South Korea:








"a) The Government of the Republic of Korea is strongly encouraged to repeal the National Security Law and to consider other means, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to protect its national security.








c) All prisoners who are held for their exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression should be released unconditionally. The cases of prisoners who have been tried under previous governments should be reviewed, due account being taken of obligations arising under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. . ."








In October 1998 the UN Human Rights Committee published its views on a National Security Law case submitted under the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR. It stated that the conviction of Park Tae-hoon in 1993 by South Korea's Supreme Court had constituted a violation of his right to freedom of expression, in accordance with Article 19 of the ICCPR. It called on the South Korean Government to provide a remedy to the former prisoner and to ensure that similar violations do not occur in future.




Situation in South Korea very bad. Now I am in South Korea.  Korean laws  and government not working. It seems as corruption. Many students, workers have problem with health. Korean people relation to foreigners very bad. They don't want to respect. I am one of the who suffered in South Korea. President Lee Myung Bak must be responsible for all crimes according to International Law. Judgement should be by International court of Justice.




I call everyone to sign this petition. We have to stop human rights violation all over the world. South Korea didn't want to stop human rights violation in South Korea. Korean President's office, Human rights Commission of Korea didn't want it. I told them. So we have to stop it immediately. Let' stop it. No one can be slave and we will not allow slavery. I sent letter President Obama, US Sentaor John Kerry, International court of Justice and United Nations. I hope they will support. 








Links to videos




 South Korea death penalty abolition set back by Constitutional Court ruling




25 February 2010




Amnesty International said it was deeply disappointed by the South Korean Constitutional Court's decision to uphold the death penalty on Thursday.

In a five to four ruling, the Constitutional Court stated that capital punishment did not violate "human dignity and worth" protected in the Constitution.

"This is a major setback for South Korea and runs counter to the current abolitionist trend in the country, which has not executed in over a decade," said Roseann Rife, Asia-Pacific Deputy Programme Director at Amnesty International.

Amnesty International considers South Korea to be abolitionist in practice, as it has not carried out any executions since President Kim Dae-jung took office in February 1998. President Kim himself had previously been sentenced to death in 1980. However, death sentences are still handed down with currently 57 people remaining on death row.

Increasingly countries are moving away from using the death penalty as the ultimate punishment. More than 70 per cent of countries have a moratorium on executions or have abolished capital punishment.

"Despite this ruling, we call on the South Korean government to retain the country's abolitionist position and urge them to fully abolish this practice in the law. Any move backwards on this issue is extremely damaging to South Korea's international reputation. An economic leader, the country also should lead by example by fully respecting every individual's right to life," said Roseann Rife.

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases, as a violation of the right to life and the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. The death penalty is irrevocable, and there is always the risk that an innocent person will be executed.

Furthermore, the death penalty is inherently arbitrary and discriminates against those who are poor, marginalized or belong to minority communities.

The Constitutional Court of Korea was established in September 1988 and its functions include deciding on the constitutionality of laws, ruling on competence disputes between governmental entities, adjudicating constitutional complaints filed by individuals, giving final decisions on impeachments, and making judgments on dissolution of political parties.




Freedom of Expression in South Korea




Korean MBC Message to the world 'fight against Control of Speech in Korea'









Kim Dae-jung - For the people and for history 






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